Wikipedia defines passive aggression as "the indirect expression of hostility, such as through procrastination, stubbornness, sullen behavior, or deliberate or repeated failure to accomplish requested tasks." Sound familiar?
Passive aggression kills morale because the hostility festers under a veneer of business-as-usual. I've been in some workplaces where the pent-up anger is thick enough to cut with dull butter knife.
Below are the seven all-too-common behaviors that truly kill morale, along with my suggestion for how to deal with them.
1. Anonymous handwritten notes.
Those nasty post-its that show up in the break room or by the copier are classic passive-aggression.
Because they're anonymous and won't be called to account, the writers of such notes feel free to spew their frustrated bile, usually using ALL CAPS WITH MULTIPLE EXCLAMATION POINTS!!!
Such notes create a general feeling of hostility that's difficult or impossible to dispel. Everyone knows that "somebody" is really angry at "somebody" but since nobody knows who's actually involved, it's just free-floating negative energy.
Fix: If you see one of these notes, immediately crumple it up and throw it in the trash where it belongs. Eventually people will stop leaving them.
2. Being consistently late for meetings.
Everyone is late for a meeting once in a while, but anyone who is late consistently is being passive-aggressive. He is communicating his hostility by wasting everyone else's time.
Habitual latecomers slow everything down. Meetings take longer, obviously, and may run into overtime, creating more lateness and eating up everyone's productivity.
What's worse, this kind of passive aggression is contagious. I once worked in a company where no meeting ever began on time. Everyone came late to every meeting and that was OK.
At one point, the company hired a COO from outside who, frustrated at the insanity, started locking the conference room door at the beginning of each meeting, and ignoring the VPs banging at the door. That learned 'em.
Fix: Start all meetings on time, regardless of who's present or not. Refuse to go over what's already been said. No exceptions; even if the latecomer is the boss.
3. Doing the absolute minimum.
This is when somebody completes an assigned task, technically and literally, but doesn't do what's necessary to make the task meaningful. That way the person can say "Hey, I did what I was told" and still screw over everyone else.
For example, suppose a CSO hears through the grapevine that a certain important customer is unhappy. The CSO tell a support technician to "call them and find out what's wrong."
The technician calls the customer's main switchboard and leaves a voice mail in the general mailbox. Three days later, when the CSO asks for an update, the technician says: "I called them but they haven't gotten back to me yet."
The cumulative effect of "absolute minimum" behavior is a standard of inefficiency. Activity continues but nothing gets done well. Morale suffers because people know something is wrong but can't get at the real problem.
Fix: Assign specific goals and specific timeframes. For example, the CSO should have said: "Keep calling them until you find out what's going on and report back at the end of the day."
4. Meetings at inconvenient times.
Scheduling important meetings at times that are inconvenient for other people is classic passive aggression. It's a not-too-subtle way for people with power to prove that they're more important than everyone else.
These "emergency" meetings play havoc with morale because nobody can make personal plans without being aware that they'll have to be called off at a moment's notice. (This is similar to the burnout caused by the expectation that people should answer work emails 24/7.)
I had one manager who kept insisting on weekend sessions until one of his direct reports, a woman pregnant with her second child, screamed "We are not f***ing working over Easter weekend!" and threw a pencil at his head.
She missed, unfortunately. The morale in that group was beyond horrible and productivity was non-existent. Beyond that, working in that crocodile pit was one of the worst experiences in my life.
Fix: No meetings outside of regular work hours. No matter how important the "emergency", it can wait.
5. Long delays between emails.
You know the routine.
You send an email to a colleague that requires a quick response and then you wait, and wait, and wait. Finally, you get a response and maybe only after you've sent a couple of nudge-o-grams.
People play this mind game to prove that "you're not the boss of me." It allows them to pretend to be helpful but still have the satisfaction of irritating the heck out of you.
Just as with the latecomers to meetings, the passive aggression of long email delay is contagious. When it gets hold inside a company, the result is a palpable feeling of impotent frustration.
Fix: When you email this kind of person, attach a time-frame for a response, at which point you'll make the decision yourself or proceed without the other person's input. Yes, this really works.
6. Pretended incompetence.
In the non-working world, pretended incompetence often manifest itself as 1) husbands who can't clean a kitchen counter and 2) wives who can't remember which buttons to press to record a TV show. Even though both spouses have IQs of 140.
At work, pretended incompetence rears its ugly head inside teams. Team members who manage to do their own personal tasks efficiently are suddenly unable to complete any task without the help of somebody else on the team.
What happens is that all the work ends up being done by saps who are truly competent but too stupid (or too honest) to pretend that they're incompetent. Eventually, these top performers get fed up and leave the company.
Fix: The competent (that's us folks!) must summon the bravery to let the incompetent (pretended or otherwise) fail badly enough so that they're either fired or reprimanded.
7. Rock fetches.
A rock fetch is when you're forced to gather a series of information, approvals and bureaucratic whatnot before the other person will make a decision or do something you need done.
For example, you need a budget for a new ad campaign. The CFO says: "Before we give you the money, we need an impact plan." So you write the plan, bring it to the CFO, who says: "We'll need sign off from the CSO."
So you get a meeting with CSO and get his approval, which you bring back to the CFO who says: "Now I need a spreadsheet with an ROI breakdown." Etc., etc.
People who send you on rock fetches because either 1) they're afraid to say no to you, 2) they don't want to commit themselves, or 3) watching you fetch rocks makes them feel all superior. Either way, it's classic passive aggression.
Rock fetches are horrible for morale because they consume time and effort to no real purpose. They create stress with absolutely no payoff.
Fix: Request a complete list of everything that will be needed for the other person to make a decision or take action. Before doing anything, get a written commitment that once you've compete the list, the desired decision or action will take place.